Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Flower Power - saffron crocus

I don’t know why the Ancient Greeks made such a big fuss out of young men being turned into flowers all over the place, but here’s another one! The flower beds and grassy verges are covered at this time of year with colourful crocuses (or should that be croci? Or even, since the word is Greek, should it be krokopedes?)

Like several other flower myths there is more than one version recorded in the written sources. In the case of Krokus the sources are rare and brief and we have to guess how and when they originate. There are two stories of Krokus, both dating from near the birth of Christ rather than in more ancient Greek times.

The version of the myth which is most often repeated is that of a young handsome mortal boy from Sparta called Krokus. He fell in love with a beautiful nymph (aren’t they all?) called Smilax. The story varies even from this point. Some say Krokus ignored Smilax’s amorous advances, so engrossed was he in hunting. As a result Smilax wasted away with a broken heart, not unlike fellow nymph Echo when spurned by Narcissus. This version of the Krokus story may be a regional copy of the Echo myth. The goddess Aphrodite found the wasted Smilax and turned her into a bindweed, still seen to this day on Cyprus in the ruins of Aphrodite’s temple. The most common version of this story, though, has Smilax ignoring Korkus’s advances. The outcome for the spurned lover, however, was the same and Krokus was turned into a flower, the saffron crocus.

Yet another version of the myth says that Smilax was killed and Krokus died heart-broken. The gods turned his body into the crocus, and Smilax’s body was turned into the yew tree.

For the purposes of this blog it is appropriate to mention a later version, probably the most recent. This one tells how Krokus was a lover of the god Hermes. This myth has striking similarities to one I covered last July about Apollo and Hyakinthos. Hermes and Krokus were out in the meadows practicing, or playing, with a discus. In his exuberance Hermes threw the discus at the mortal youth and accidentally killed him. In echoes of the Hyakinthos myth the god went into pangs of remorse and grief and turned the blood of his slain lover into a flower.

It is probable that the Hermes-Krokus myth was a copy of the Apollo-Hyakinthos one, just as the other version may have been copied from Echo-Narcissus. W H D Rouse, in his translation of “Dionysaica” by the 5th century writer Nonnus, in which the legend of Krokus appears, remarked that its not very well known among the ancient texts and probably dates from the last Classical period (immediately before the birth of Christ). In fact, the myth is so recent that there is no record of Krokus being depicted in ancient Greek pottery or art.

The saffron crocus into which young Krokus was turned was a highly valued spice, dye and herb in ancient times, from much earlier than any legend is recorded. It was used in medieval times to flavour food and in medicine and was, and still is, VERY expensive. When I worked at Gainsborough Old Hall in the 1990s I took school groups around one of the oldest surviving complete medieval kitchens in the UK to explain medieval cooking methods. As a souvenir of their visit we would let the children grind up a mixture of spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pepper. We also showed them saffron. Because it was so expensive we didn’t let the children handle it. We held it up in a not-very-medieval plastic sachet!

Long before the myth of Krokus was recorded, the queer Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great used saffron a great deal. He drank saffron infusions and ate saffron rice. He even sprinkled it in his warm baths. Saffron was believed to have healing powers, and Alexander believed that every soldier should take saffron baths to help heal their wounds.

The saffron crocus in particular displays some interesting sexual traits. Over centuries of cultivation the saffron crocus has become genetically altered to a state where it cannot reproduce by pollination – it is male sterile. It can only be reproduced by dividing the corm, the bulb.

Being the time of year when you see crocus flowers sprouting up everywhere, spare a thought for the poor saffron crocus whose reproductive ability has been all but lost due to the ancient passion for it’s spice and dye.

1 comment:

  1. Crocus sativus, the saffron crocus, was always sterile. It was not rendered as such through human action over time.